When a small city or town considers adding an ethanol plant or biorefinery to its community, oftentimes the financial and property capital is considered. But what are the cultural and social effects on the community? That’s what University of Illinois human and community development experts Gale Summerfield and Stephen Gasteyer, along with graduate student Keith Taylor, are analyzing in two real-life Illinois cases.

Palestine is a small community with a population of about 1,300. The Lincolnland Agri-Energy ethanol plant opened in 2004. The researchers are comparing and contrasting the issues this town faced and the effects the plant had on this community with other communities where ethanol plants have been sited, including a proposal by The Andersons for an ethanol plant in Champaign.

They are using a framework that looks at gains and costs from many different angles – not just the financial effects, but also the effects on community development, capacity and resiliency as well as global linkages, Summerfield says.

Having a nearby water source is especially important to ethanol plants, she says. “What came up in the comparison study is that, in some places, the water source was perceived as more threatened and in other places it wasn’t.” Palestine’s water source is a river, but in Champaign, water comes from the Mahomet aquifer and became a major concern, playing a role in eventually putting the project on hold.

Looking at the cultural capital has to do with the legacy of the community. “We have this sense of community and history – what’s accepted, what’s valued in common, what’s expected. Palestine is a tiny farming community, so there is less diversity and more uniformity of heritage,” Summerfield says. It wasn’t a stretch for the town to add a refinery that would help farmers. Champaign, however, is a much bigger community with many different kinds of cultural heritage. “Ties to the farming community are there, but there are also a lot of people who aren’t tied, so you see that in the opposition to the plant coming in.”

Summerfield noticed some striking differences in how gender affected the ethanol issue. “Energy isn’t an area that you typically see a lot of women (interested). But in Palestine, the mayor is a woman and the chair of the ethanol board of managers is a woman. Women are often more involved in alternative energy than in the petroleum industry; so in the case of Palestine, the women involved brought balance, looking at how it would benefit the community.”

How the plants would affect the job market in the two communities was also a point of contrast. “An ethanol plant only hires about 35 people, which isn’t a lot. But for a really small community like Palestine, that’s bringing in jobs that are geared toward people with more training, which can benefit the community as a whole,” Summerfield says.

Differences in the political climate of the two communities and how the plant has helped Palestine financially were also examined. With an excess of ethanol, combined with the plummeting price of petroleum, it has not been a good year for alternative energy of any kind. “There’s so much volatility that it’s very hard for small groups and communities to deal with this,” she says. “And when you’re dealing with a co-op situation like in Palestine, it’s good when times are good and the benefits come back to the community. But when times are bad, you don’t have the diversified base that you would if you were a larger company.”

The most remarkable differences were in what Summerfield calls “social capital,” or networking and interacting among people. For Palestine, time will tell whether it will be able to make connections with groups throughout the state and nationally. The recession has affected its potential for entrepreneurship. “There might have been byproducts or other businesses, like local development groups, that could give small loans to start up businesses,” Summerfield says.

“Using the community capitals framework, you look at a much more systemic approach to communities rather than one little piece,” she says. “The shortcoming is that you can’t really evaluate which one is more important than the other unless you assign a value to one so it’s not going to give you a clear-cut answer when you’re comparing one community to another. But within one community it can help you see that it’s not just one thing that’s happening.”

She likes to think that this methodology could help bring several capitals together and see how it can help the sustainability of communities. The next step will be more in-depth interviews in the communities.

Funding for the preliminary research was provided by the University of Illinois.